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Long Kenneth City labor tiff has toll on paychecks

Officers are stung by an unannounced deduction from their pay for insurance benefits. The mayor says it's merely correction of an oversight.

By ANNE LINDBERG
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 9, 2001


KENNETH CITY -- In a grievance, the police union alleges that Mayor Bill Smith retaliated against officers by refusing to pay insurance benefits that town officials had agreed to cover.

Smith's decision to dock four officers' paychecks last week was a payback for the officers' decision to reject a proposed employment contract, said Tim Ingold, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 43.

Ingold said the union plans this week to file a claim with the state alleging that Smith committed an unfair labor practice when he unilaterally decided to deduct increased insurance costs from paychecks with no warning.

When some officers opened their paychecks they discovered that more than $100 had been deducted to pay for increases in premiums.

Smith said Friday he had not seen the grievance. But when informed Thursday of the union's intent to file a grievance, he denied his action was either retaliatory or wrong.

"They can say anything they want, but that's not true," Smith said.

Smith said he was acting under instructions from town attorney Paul Marino. Marino had told him the officers were not entitled to have the town pay the insurance increases until a new contract was agreed upon.

"He said they don't get any of the new benefits of the new contract until it is ratified," Smith said.

The contract dispute between Kenneth City and its police officers goes back a few years -- to when the last contract expired. At the time, the officers were represented by the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

Town and PBA officials spent more than a year negotiating while the contract remained open. Officers finally became frustrated with the lack of progress and, for the second time, asked the FOP to come represent them.

Just before officers were scheduled to vote on the union change, PBA and town officials agreed to a contract. The officers ratified it and, shortly after, chose the FOP to represent them.

When the union changeover occurred, Ingold said, he found out that officers were extremely unhappy with their pension plan and asked to reopen negotiations.

Ingold said reopening negotiations was the union's right because of the changeover.

However, he said, town officials did not see it that way.

"The mayor and the attorney said, "We're not negotiating with you. We just negotiated a contract,"' Ingold said.

The two groups squabbled over that, then the town agreed to negotiate everything except the pension.

Officers wanted to be switched to the state pension system. Currently, the town contributes 10 percent of an employee's gross wages to a plan. Employees also have a chance to make contributions of their own to another plan the town offers.

Switching to the state system would give officers a chance to build retirement faster, but would cost the town more. It's unclear how much more. Estimates range from an additional 7 percent a year to as much as 26 percent annually.

The pension dispute has been raging for six months, Ingold said, and the union has "made no progress" with the pension issue.

Finally, Ingold took a proposed contract to the officers on Oct. 31 without pension changes.

"They looked at me and they wanted to skin me alive," Ingold said. They told him, "Did you listen to us? Pay and pension. ... We have to have some movement in pay and pension."

Officers unanimously rejected the proposed contract.

Town officials, however, adopted the contract by a 4-1 vote.

While all that was happening, the council had passed a resolution in early October to increase the town's contribution to increased insurance costs. That meant that, instead of paying $3,400 a year toward insurance costs, the town would pay $4,100 a year.

As soon as that was passed, employees' paychecks were changed. In essence, employees got more take home pay because they would not have to pay as much out of pocket for insurance costs.

However, Marino, the town attorney, said the town should not have helped police officers with the increased insurance costs because they were still operating under the PBA-negotiated contract, Smith said. He told Smith to stop contributing the extra $700 a year, or about $27 a pay period, from the checks.

"We made a mistake (because) we were trying to do the right thing," Smith said. "We're getting kind of slapped by the attorney for doing it."

Smith said he followed Marino's instructions and stopped the increased contributions. The town is still contributing the amount set under the PBA contract.

Four officers were affected because of the type of coverage they had. It included children or spouses.

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